Must We Suffer? Emotional Upheaval as Inspiration

file000920239492Digging through a box the other day, I came across photos from long ago. The photos brought back some painful memories of relationships past.

You know what that means — poetry in the making.

It’s no secret that poetry is a great mechanism for working out our shit. As Robert Frost said, “Poetry begins with a lump in the throat.”

Since poets began writing, poems have been the outlets for poets’ raw emotions. The more tortured, the better. Poetry is a method of healing old wounds. In fact, even the National Institutes of Health have acknowledged the healing power of writing poetry.

So instead of suffering needlessly, why not suffer with purpose?

Here are a few techniques I’ve used to write about emotional upheaval:

Detach. Oddly, sometimes just avoiding showing the emotion can hit readers harder than if you describe the emotions you’re feeling. My poem Veterans Day at the Wall didn’t show the pain of loss that comes from war — it was hinted at:

Seven Hundred Twenty-two miles


hours traveled


Forty-three years


to read Thirty names on


paper    Three had


Fifteen minutes apart


minutes to say


Thirty including those


names he drinks to


Use different descriptors. Hell, half the fun of poetry is finding a new way to say something. William Carlos Williams wrote one of the best examples of switching up descriptors in Smell, where he describes his sexual desire as if it were a nose:

What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedreggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them.

Insert anger. To me, it’s the stepchild of sorrow. Try taking your sadness and digging deep — why are you sad and what about that sadness makes you angry? Write about that anger.

Sneak up on it. If you don’t know Frank O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died, you’ve missed a prime example of expressing loss through showing where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news.

Use form to convey emotion. When you read Bob Perelman’s Chronic Meanings, without knowing what it’s about, you can see each line ends mid-thought. Five words in each incomplete sentence:

The single fact is matter.
Five words can say only.
Black sky at night, reasonably.
I am, the irrational residue.

Perelman uses form, rather brilliantly, to show how life is cut short. The poem is a reaction to learning about someone who was dying of AIDS at a young age. His incomplete sentences all end in periods, further emphasizing the premature finality.

Poets, how have you handled writing about emotion? 

What methods are most impactful to you?

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